Life In A Desert

“I like to take things one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.  I like to think things will all work out fine, and follow along behind.”

Mesa de Anguila 086I’d never hiked Big Bend’s Mesa de Anguila, and there is not much useful information available to prepare you for what is in store:  “offers an opportunity for solitude in an area with exceptional views.  The trails may not be obvious as animal trails diverge from the main trail, and sections of trail may be overgrown with grass and shrubs. The trek is recommended for experienced desert backpackers only.”  That’s about it.

Seven hour drive to park headquarters for the permit, another hour further to the trailhead at Lajitas.  There’s really nothing in Lajitas, but I still managed to not find the road the trailhead was supposed to be at the end of.  Stopped and asked directions at the town store, and the first person I asked said “I’ve only been here since September 19, maybe you should ask Natalie.”  It was mid-January, and although I wanted to learn more about how you could not know where everything was in Lajitas in that space of time, I was in a hurry and got directions from Natalie.

Loaded up and hit the unknown trail at 3 pm.  Hiking in, I met a really healthy looking couple on their way out from a day hike.  As is often the case in our National Parks, they were not from the U.S., in this case Namibia.  “This is our favorite hike here; we really love the views.”  I asked how long they’d been here, and they replied “since December 1st.”  Again, an exact date for how long since they’d arrived in Lajitas.  There’s something going on in that town.

Up to the top of “The Saddle,” which is an obvious landmark rising before you as you leave the trailhead.  That’s the steepest part of the Mesa de Anguila hike, and it’s not bad at all.  When you get to the top, before you head off toward where the sun will come up tomorrow morning on the mesa, don’t miss the little trail turning off to the right.  There’s a beautiful view that takes in the bends of the Rio Grande and countless unnamed mesas down Mexico way.  You won’t have any company.Mesa de Anguila 094

“And some things they just happen, and some things you can plan.  And some of those things you just can’t help, but some of them you can.”

This is the quietest place I’ve ever hiked.  No chirping birds, no planes passing far overhead, no trees to russle leaves in the wind.  Only your thoughts, which can be quite loud at times.  Just before leaving on this trip I’d learned that a friend from years ago had died.  On the day of her funeral, Alice’s sister had said “she just wanted to move on,” and I wondered what had made Alice want to hurry the pace and shorten the trip.

From the top of the mesa I knew of only one trail, and my plan was to walk it as far as I


Map I got at the permit check-in. I added little x’s before and after La Mariposa indicating the best camping spots I saw. Note particularly that the trail down to Santa Elena Canyon passes east of La Mariposa; there is another unmarked trail at that intersection that passes west.

could before I ran out of sunlight.  I had the whole next day to get a feel for the terrain and figure out how far I could go and make it back to my car after a second night out. Generally speaking, on most multi-day backpacking trips I try and walk as far as possible each day, but I have to make sure that where each day ends there is a decent place to pitch a tent.  It’s no good to walk as far as daylight permits and then find yourself half-way up a mountainside trail, which is what I did that evening.

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Where I found myself at sunset.

I suppose I could stay in one place and see and hear and smell all things new to me, but I have to walk.   There is so much to know, and I’m afraid I might miss something if I don’t keep moving.  And so I wondered that first night what had stopped Alice so short?  She still had a lot of ground to cover.

I backtracked a bit to find a flat spot for my tent, but got settled in as the light disappeared and the temperature plummeted.  My bag is rated to 20 degrees, and I was definitely cold.  Freezing in my bag and tired from the long drive, I was late hitting the trail the next morning, but made it to the north bank of the Rio Grande right at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon by noon-ish. Mesa de Anguila 054

The canyon is beautiful, but you can’t really get into it without a boat, and once in you are not coming back.  Check out my visit across the Rio Grande at the Park’s other end along the Marufo Vega Trail (  I dawdled at the river for a light lunch, soaked my feet in the cold, silty water, spritzed a bit, and turned north to head back out.  That’s another part of pacing yourself, remembering that whatever you go down, you eventually have to go back up.

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What I had to go back up.

Once back up on the mesa, I knew where I was going to camp my final night:  the last decent spot I’d seen on my way in, about two hours from the trailhead.  Excited to get back on the road and head back home, I planned to wake a half-hour or so before first light, break camp, and be on the trail as soon as there was enough light to see.  But now in tune with the desert vibe, I was up and about around 4:30 am, and everything you’ve ever heard about the night sky out in the desert is true.  Watched the stars a bit, saw a shooting star, and then had to look down because my brain was freaking as it gradually began to understand the depth of field I was looking at.  There really are more stars in the sky than you can count, or even comprehend.  It hurts your brain once you understand how tiny, tiny you are.

On the trail as soon as I could see it.  I hadn’t realized that up on a mesa, the sun would clear the horizon down below well before it made it above the mesa.  I had a good hour of light before I ever saw the sun.  Walking, pacing myself just right, moving along, I suddenly had to stop.  It was so beautiful, that light.  Like everything was new, and life was just beginning.Mesa de Anguila 065

“Some things they just happen, and some things you can plan.  And some of those things you just can’t help, but some of them you can.  Oh, some of them you can.  As a matter of fact, those things are driving me crazy.”

Why give up looking at those stars and that morning desert before you had to?  It is a strange feeling, to know someone intimately yet not understand what would cause them to hurry things along.  Alice was a professional musician, from a family of professional musicians.  She was alive to all those notes and melodies, so far beyond what I could hope to understand.  I suspect the brief time we spent together was irrelevant to the great arc of her life, but the arc was there, full of infinite possibilities, nonetheless.  Just imagining what she might have discovered, had she allowed herself more time, is awe inspiring.  Like a map full of blank spaces instead of trails, or a night sky full of stars.

Big Bend is beautiful.  In a certain frame of mind, though, you look at it and think “but what does it all mean?”  This is a mountain, that is a sunset, those are all the stars in the sky–but that is all they are.  They don’t, by themselves, mean anything.  And what does it mean that I am here, in this place?  These mountains, this sky, are totally indifferent to my existence.  They just are.  As am I, or Alice.  We have to give ourselves meaning.  And then it can be quite beautiful.

“There are things that come too soon, and some things that come too late.  It’s the best thing to come too early so you have some time to wait.  Oh, have some time to wait.”




I like to take things one step at a time
One foot in front of the other
I like to think things will all work out fine
And follow along behind those
One act play-things can give you a thrill
Guess it depends on the actor
Dreams can come true, but some things never will
As a matter of fact, those things are driving me crazy
Those things are keeping me sane
I like to take things and make a design
Keep a low profile. Oh and
I like to take things and put them to rhyme
Like those things that are confusing
And the things that seem so clear
And the things that seem so far away
And yet they seem so near
There are some things I have lost
And a few things I have found
Well it’s so hard to keep track of things
There’s so many around
There’s so many around
And there’s things we have to look for
And a few we never find
And we all have things in common
You got your thing, I’ve got mine
And some things they just happen
And some things you can plan
And some of those things you just can’t help
But some of them you can
Oh, some of them you can.  As a matter of fact, those things
Are driving me crazy
Those things are keeping me sane
Some things turn out all wrong
And some things turn out all right
Some things don’t turn out at all
But then again they might
There are things that come too soon
And some things that come too late
It’s the best thing to come too early
So you have some time to wait
Oh, have some time to wait
Well it’s hard to talk with words
There’s some things you just can’t say
And it’s best to leave some things alone
In case they go away
You can share some things with friends
There’s some things we’ve all been thru’
Well it’s things like this and things like that
And how are things with you?
Oh, how do you do?
You can hang things on your wall
You can leave your things around
You can mark some things 2001, and put them in the ground
And maybe later on, they will dig them up some day
And ooh and ahh, and ‘how ’bout that?’
Who knows the things they’ll say.

Joe Walsh






Marufo Vega Trail

Marufo Vega 036My original plan for hiking Big Bend National Park’s Marufo Vega Trail was to hit the trail in the cooling late afternoon, take my time down the trail and camp that night somewhere before the river.  I’d spend the next day checking out the Rio Grande and Mexico on the other side, and then head back and camp near the trailhead the next evening and get an early start back home.

There is very little info on this trail, so although my itinerary proved impossible to implement, this turned out to be an awesome trip.  Marufo Vega, which means “skin cancer” in Spanish, is not an easy hike, but I’ll share with you now things I wish I’d known before starting out.

First and most importantly, this is a winter and fall hike.  I did it in early April, and although the temperature did not rise above the mid-80’s, the sun was brutal.  The first 2.5 miles of trail are over entirely shadeless rock and desert,

and although the scenery grew in beauty, I was really happy to find the first shade in a rough little wash canyon.  Do not attempt Marufo Vega in the late Spring and Summer.

Second, there is no place to camp prior to or after the river.  Your only option, other than doing it as a day hike, is to camp on the section that follows the river, and this is definitely something worth doing.  I camped on the flood plain beneath where the South Fork of the trail meets the river on a little trail appendage, but I saw a good looking spot at the other end, right where the North Fork meets the river.  I saw no one during my stay, and it was awesome.  I’ve always backpacked Big Bend up in the Chisos, and I was unaware Big Bend had such magnificent canyons.Marufo Vega 098

I would save the $10 a NPS-recommended topographical map will cost you; it isn’t especially useful in keeping on the trail, and in the few places I lost track of the cairns temporarily, if you were eventually lost enough for the topo to be useful, you will definitely die soon and won’t need a map.  On the other hand, the ranger at the permit desk gave me a free and very useful map, which I referred to often.  Feel free to download this copy in case they are out of them.  And don’t lose track of the cairns.MarufoMap

Finally, water:  curiously, the NPS link states that “there is no water along this trail, and the river water is not potable.”  Well, d’uh.  Take along your filtration system, and save yourself some weight in water packed in.  Be sensible, particularly if you are solo, and carry enough water nonetheless in case things go wrong, because this is not a trail to be on unprepared if things go wrong.

A couple of notes about the trail itself:  I recommend taking the North Fork in and the South Fork out.  It’s pretty easy to follow in that direction, and less so counter-clockwise.  The descent toward the river that begins about half-way along the North Fork is very steep, particularly with a pack for overnighting.Marufo Vega 061  You do not want to negotiate this part of the trail in the dark (or any other part, for that matter).  And finally, one of the best views from the trail is about 200 yards off the juncture of the South Fork and the side trail down to the river.  The Ranger at the permit desk told me most people didn’t go down to the river (WTF!?), so if you are considering skipping that extra half-mile down and then back up on a day trip, do not miss this view.Marufo Vega 119

Product Review: Rubber Bitch

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I own a really nice tent, so we’re not going to talk about how I ended up without a tent in Big Bend this week.  This rainy, cold week.  With gale force winds.  All night long.

But I’d love to talk about how happy I was to improvise my little shelter-half out of a poncho–happy, not because it kept me dry (it did, sort of), but because of the flood of memories it brought back.

Somewhere back in 1978-79, I was stationed on Okinawa in a Marine infantry company, and sort of the point in being in the infantry is that you’re going to spend a lot of time sleeping on the ground.  I realized early that as much as I enjoyed playing in the dirt, I really liked going home and getting clean at the end of the day, which is not how things worked out most of the time.

dll758This is a picture of Flores.  I lived in that little tent with Flores for a solid month, and I never knew his first name.  He was Corporal Flores to me.  Flores had served with the Army in Vietnam, fought in the A Shau Valley, and why he got out and then enlisted in the Corps, he never said.  Found something he needed, I suppose; being that old and experienced and still a Corporal probably explains a lot.  He was a really good man.  Anyway, that tent is composed of two joined “shelter-halves.”  Each Marine carried his own shelter-half, which he could stretch out like a tarp, or join to another Marine’s half and make a tent.  This photo was taken during the month we spent up in the Northern Training Area, and at that point I was the company radioman, which kept me separated from the rifle platoons.  Flores–I don’t even remember why Flores was up there, because he was a supply guy, but I do remember that he was the guy burning the shit.  If you’ve never smelled shit burning in diesel, you’ve really missed out on an experience.  Even on Okinawa, they grabbed the Mexican to burn the shit.


Improvise–Adapt–Overcome.  There’s so much of the Corps that you will never get out of your system.  Improvising that little lean-to out of my 99 cent poncho made me feel like I was getting ready for a slumber party that I knew was going to turn bad–there was no way that was going to keep me dry, but I wasn’t willing to admit I was screwed.  But once I managed to weigh down the bottom with enough rocks to withstand the wind, and wrapped my feet sticking out the end in a trash bag, it did ok.  I woke up the first morning, sure I was somehow buried under storm rubble when I opened my eyes to a greenish darkness and felt only something cold and wet.  Turned out I was just shoved right up under the bottom edge, which was a relief until I scooted out a bit and hit the poncho’s hood hanging down, which had filled with water during the night and instantly emptied on my once-dry crotch.

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You’ll notice another piece of equipment, my Big Agnes mattress.  I already own a Therma-Rest “Self-Inflating” mattress, but I wasn’t particularly happy with it–wait, that’s not honest:  I HATE THERMA-REST.  “Self-Inflating” means it inflates itself, but even after blowing my lungs out into it, it still feels like sleeping on layered cardboard.  I hesitated to buy the Big Agnes, because it looks so much like another piece of Marine Infantry gear, the Rubber Bitch.  Somehow, Flores and I each had our Rubber Bitches in that little tent, and the rubber smell of that thing lingers almost as thoroughly as diesel-burned shit.

The Big Agnes is a awesome.  Very comfortable, and–best of all–it packs amazingly small, about half the size of the Therma-damn-Rest.BigBendNatandKevin 003

Well, there’s lots of other things I could review about this trip, which is probably my last to Big Bend for a while even though I discovered a whole new aspect to the Park which will definitely make it worth visiting again, but I’ll save that for later.  Happy Trails.

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Naturally Stupid

One thing that always strikes me about wild animals is their failure to behave reasonably.  I live in a fairly populated urban area, and it is literally crawling with wild animals.  These stupid birds are screaming–not singing–right outside my window most of the time, day and sometimes late at night.  Squirrels are cute at first, but quickly you grow tired of them emptying out your bird feeder and doing their little squirrel-yells at you from a tree when they aren’t happy that you’re out in your yard.  We’ve had fox, turkey, deer, and wild ducks pass through our little plot of suburbia recently.  And what‘s the deal with raccoons?  It’s like there’s a hidden raccoon mound in the neighborhood, and every night someone kicks it and out they pour.

Are They Trying To Tell Me Something?

But I was walking a trail in Big Bend National Park this past weekend, and it suddenly occurred to me that you seldom actually see wild animals in places where there are fewer humans.  What you see instead are constant signs that an animal has been there, but rarely the actual animal.  You don’t have to tramp very far at all up in the Chisos Mountains before you come across your first pile of animal poop right in the middle of the trail.  And then another.  And another.  You don’t ever see the animal, just this consistently sized, colored, and shaped pile that something leaves right in the middle of the trail, mile after mile.  But what could it be?  Judging by the size of the scat, it wasn’t especially small and wasn’t a bird, but there was a lot of it with no correspondingly visible herd of mid-size mammals crashing about.  This seemed like the sort of knowledge I needed to acquire, but why?

Why Did The Mouse Cross The Road?

I like useless knowledge.  It’s just part of who I am.  Not the “knowledge” part–the “useless” part.  I used to get down on myself for acquiring all this info but never actually doing anything with it, but past a certain age you finally get comfortable with the under-performing parts of you that just aren‘t going to change.  I was thinking about this as I drove out of the Park in the pre-dawn hours when a mouse ran across the road.  “Why, with all these hundreds of square desert miles to choose from, did that mouse dart in front of my lone car at 6 a.m.?”  Moving along crisply at 75 mph, I’d just had time to formulate that question when a jackrabbit also decided that, rather than wait the two seconds it would take my car to pass, he too needed to run directly in front of my car.  “What is wrong with these animals?”  I believe all life is sacred, but that some life is more sacred than others.  I’ll do everything I can to avoid running over a squirrel that is doing its best to run under my wheels, but let a fly buzz into my bedroom when I’m trying to sleep and one of us is going to die (hint:  it’s the one with the wings).   Driving alone on an arrow straight desert highway in pitch black morning focuses your thoughts on immediate issues like this–until I saw the deer.  Still trying to understand how I could suddenly be surrounded by wild animals after spending much more low-velocity time in their midst but only seeing poop, I was nonplussed to now find a rather large deer vectoring across the front of my car.  I try not to curse, but “oh, fuck” just came right out.  Not angrily, but slowly, in awe.  The next seconds became a game of chicken, as I tried to judge if and how much I’d need to slow down to miss the deer without going into a skid, while the deer, with a glance over his shoulder (I swear I am not making this up) also decided that he could slow just a tad and still cross the road without hitting me.  Now a second, much louder “Oh, fuck” came out as I realized that we had faked each other out, and gassed the car ever so slightly to avoid all kinds of bad things.

The next half hour was a nightmare.  More mice darting across the road, more rabbits.  When I saw another deer standing by the side of the road, it’s antlered head raised and reflecting red eyes staring, judging as I approached whether he had time to dart in front of my car, I decided it was time to pull over and wait for the sun to rise and more reasonable heads to prevail in the desert ecosystem.  Now, I’m sure somebody is going to know why all these fricking animals suddenly decided to become visible just as my car passed, but honestly I’ve already moved on.